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Workers don’t always use vacation time – but should

Reduced stress is just one benefit of taking

Reduced stress is just one benefit of taking time off from work, even for a "staycation." Photo Credit: Getty Images / ISTOCK

As summer approaches, it’s worth considering a benefit of the season that many Americans won’t be taking advantage of: vacation.

While employees in other countries enjoy as many as 40 days off a year, in the U.S. paid time off is not legally required. Most full-time employees here receive about 10 paid days a year, not counting federal holidays, which is the least paid vacation time in the developed world.

While many Americans do not get paid leave, many of those who do are not able to take advantage of it. In fact, the number of annual vacation days Americans use has steadily declined over the past two decades. That lost time means that workers are forfeiting more than $52 billion in benefits, according to analysis from Oxford Economics.

While some can’t afford a vacation, many are not even enjoying a “staycation,” and that’s not serving them well. Research from Gallup found that workers who take routine vacations are happier than those who don’t take regular trips and earn more. It could be that America’s workaholic culture makes it difficult for workers to feel entitled to their time off.

The benefits of taking time off are well known, including reduced stress and improved productivity. Still, a whopping 28 percent of workers do not take vacation so they can prove their dedication and not be seen as slackers. Another 40 percent are afraid of the work they’d have to do when they got back from vacation, and roughly a fifth of workers express concern that they would be seen as replaceable if they used their time off.

Companies have gotten the message, realizing that stressed-out, overworked employees are not able to give their best without a break. That’s why many employers are implementing “use it or lose it” policies around vacation and are strongly encouraging employees to take vacation.

While some vacation skippers cite budget constraints, many simply don’t want to take the time to plan. But a reasonably priced trip is likely just a few clicks away — here are a few ideas to get you going.

If you’re looking to score a good deal on flights, start with larger search engines like Google Flights or Kayak, and also try lesser-known sites such as SkyScanner and Momondo. Then call the airlines, because they often hold back many of their best fares. Check regional airports outside of major cities, and know that the day of the week can make a big difference in fares. With a stronger U.S. dollar, you may pay less to travel than a year ago just by flying abroad. Far afield, check out Japan, and closer to home, Canada.

After a lot of bad press and excess capacity, there are plenty of bargains in the cruise industry, and riverboats have also become competitive. For those who want to skip the hassle of the airport, you may opt for a road trip. With gas down 45 cents from a year ago, AAA says summer drivers will pay the lowest gas prices in more than a decade. For lodging, Airbnb has changed the landscape, putting pressure on hotels to come up with better deals. HotelsCombined is good for budget hotels, and Trivago for midrange to more expensive ones.

Whatever you do, please try to take a break, even if it that means just a few days “off the grid,” when you don’t check email or voicemail, don’t set the alarm, and do feel entitled to lounge around doing absolutely nothing.

Jill Schlesinger, a certified financial planner, is a CBS News business analyst. She welcomes emailed comments and questions.

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